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Asian vultures to be extinct in ten years without immediate action

15/05/2008 16:25:27 news/Long_beaked_vulture_ZSL

Numbers have dropped by 99.9% in 15 years

May 2008. Asian vultures face extinction in the wild within a decade without urgent action to eliminate the livestock drug that has caused their catastrophic decline, scientists are warning.  Their decline has been quicker than that of any other wild bird, including the dodo. 

40%  decline every year

A new study shows that the population of oriental white-backed vultures is dropping by more than 40 per cent every year in India where it has plunged by 99.9 per cent since 1992. Numbers of long-billed and slender-billed vultures together, have fallen by almost 97 per cent in the same period.

Conservationists say that banning the retail sale of the veterinary drug diclofenac and constructing more captive breeding centres is the only way to save the birds.

Captive breeding centres

Three captive breeding centres have been built so far in India: in Harayana, northern India, where 120 vultures are housed, in West Bengal, holding 52 vultures, and in Assam, holding 10 vultures.  Two additional centres are operational in Nepal and Pakistan.  These centres aim to hold viable populations of all three species. 

Drug ban being ignored

Manufacture of the veterinary form of the drug, as an anti-inflammatory treatment for livestock, was outlawed in India in 2006, but it remains widely available. Furthermore, diclofenac formulated for humans is being used to treat livestock.

Scientists counted vultures in northern and central India between March and June last year. They surveyed the birds from vehicles along more than 160 sections of road totalling 18,900 kilometres in length. Their study followed four previous counts, the last in 2003.

In a paper, published in the Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society, they say "the oriental white-backed vulture is now in dire straits with only one thousandth of the 1992 population remaining.

White backed vultures. Copyright Nick Lindsay/ZSL"All three species could be down to a few hundred birds or less across the whole country and thus functionally extinct in less than a decade...It is imperative that diclofenac is removed completely from use in livestock without any further delay to avoid the extinction of the three vulture species," they add.

Tens of millions of vultures have disappeared

The scientists believe that numbers of oriental white-backed vultures in India could now be down to 11,000 from tens of millions in the 1980s. Populations of long-billed and slender-billed vultures have dropped to around 45,000 and 1,000 birds respectively.

Vulture numbers may be even lower than the authors' estimate because many of the sites used for their study were in or near protected areas, where the threat from diclofenac may be lower.

The lead author, Dr Vibhu Prakash, of the Bombay Natural History Society, said "Efforts must be redoubled to remove diclofenac from the vultures' food supply and to protect and breed a viable population in captivity."

Captive breeding

Principle Investigator and co-author, Dr Andrew Cunningham of the Zoological Society of London, added, "These survey results show that imminent extinction looms for at least three species of vulture in India.  Captive breeding is their last hope, so we are delighted that one of these species, the Oriental white-backed vulture, has successfully been bred this year in one of the captive breeding centres."  

Co-author, Dr Richard Cuthbert, of the RSPB, said "Time has almost run out to prevent the extinction of vultures in the wild in India. The ban on diclofenac manufacture was a good start but a ban on the sale of diclofenac and other drugs known to cause kidney failures in vultures is vital."


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